73 year-old man “lands in coma” after “encounter” with Missoula police

Justice

Last month, Missoula police responded to a complaint that a man on Higgins Avenue was shining a flashlight in the eyes of passing drivers. That man was 73 year-old James Smith. Commuters may know him as the guy who sits in his yard with a heart-shaped box during rush hour. According to police affidavits, Smith hit two officers with his flashlight when they arrived at his home on May 20. After he was detained, he tried to kick and trip them. Two days later, his daughter got a call informing her that he was in a coma. Here’s Dylan Kato at the Missoulian:

Stephanie Smith, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said that in addition to the coma, her father sustained a skull fracture, multiple facial fractures, a concussion, respiratory failure, bruised ribs, organ damage, bruising and other injuries from the incident. While he was sometimes confused or disoriented before the incident, Smith said these symptoms, as well as amnesia, have become more prominent since he was hospitalized.

What happened between when Smith was arrested and when he was hospitalized with multiple head traumas is not stated. Who can say what put this 73 year-old man in a coma? It’s a stone-cold whodunnit, as far as the Missoulian is concerned.

The reticence starts with the headline: “State investigates Missoula police after encounter lands 73-year-old man in coma.” Whatever happened was not a beating or even an arrest. It was an encounter, and it “landed” Smith in a coma the same way Bugs Bunny’s hijinks land him in trouble. “Lands” is an odd choice of verb that reflects this headline’s desire to allege as little as possible. The pathological refusal to say anyone did anything continues in the opening paragraphs:

The Montana Department of Justice is conducting a use-of-force review after an incident involving the Missoula Police Department in May ended with a 73-year-old man hospitalized in a coma. James Smith spent several days in Providence St. Patrick Hospital before he was committed involuntarily to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. He was released to his daughter following a court hearing May 30.

That doesn’t even say who released him, much less how he got into that coma. It was an “incident involving the Missoula Police Department,” and it “ended” with Smith near death, but beyond that we cannot say. Maybe he fell down the stairs ten times before a metal press closed on his head.

Kato has a good reason to write this way. The matter is still under investigation, and a newspaper must be careful never to blame people for things they might not have done. The passive voice is a way to maintain a scrupulous objectivity. But it can also disconnect the facts of a story so thoroughly as to distort it. When Markus Kaarma was charged with murder after shooting a teenager in his garage, the Missoulian did not report that an incident involving him ended with a 17 year-old exchange student bleeding to death. We reserve such conspicuously softened language for the police.

Reporting potential instances of police brutality as vague situations that just happened is an industry-wide habit. It reflects a journalism that has become too deferential to police. On the cops-and-crime beat, the prohibition against attributing fault to cops is so powerful as to outweigh the prohibition against the passive voice, leading otherwise strong writers into paragraphs like this:

Missoula police Detective Capt. Mike Colyer said on May 24 that he was called to the scene shortly after 2:30 a.m. on May 20. He confirmed that Smith had been hospitalized after being detained, and that due to the potential use-of-force issue, the department followed best practices and asked the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation to conduct an independent review.

Smith has been hospitalized and detained, but for what and by whom go unstated. The injuries that put him in a coma are a “potential use-of-force issue,” reinforcing the vagueness of the passive voice with some old-fashioned Orwellian euphemism. One of the paragraph’s only active verbs pops up to shine a favorable light on the police department, which “followed best practices” by asking for an independent review [of how two of its officers put an elderly man in a coma.]

I want to emphasize that this style of writing is not Kato’s invention or even his choice. He’s following standard practices in daily news reporting, and wisely so. He’s working with limited information, and he doesn’t want to smear two good cops if there is somehow an innocent explanation for all this. Neither does he want to get his paper sued. He’s got editors combing his copy to make sure that doesn’t happen, while on the other end he’s got to worry about access. If cops think he wrote a hit piece on other cops, his job as a reporter gets a lot harder. I don’t want to blame Kato for having to work under these pressures. But I do want to draw attention to the system that pressures him, and the way news reporting bends over backwards to say nothing critical of the police.

Maybe it’s not just reporters, though. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this story comes at the end, when Kato paraphrases Smith’s daughter and her husband:

They reinforced that they appreciate the help they have received from the police department, as well as lawyers in the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the Office of the State Public Defender, since they arrived in Missoula. “The people that we dealt with are very nice, including the detective and evidence people. Over all this we do support law enforcement, we understand that they put their lives in harm’s way,” Jones said.

It does look like they almost beat her father to death, though. I was going to say that we give police too much deference. We heap praise on them whenever they become vulnerable to criticism, so that the more evidently awful things they do, the more we announce our support. That was going to be my conclusion. But if this woman doesn’t agree, who would?

My shoulder hurts

An injury narrative

I started this blog in 2008, a few months after I had surgery to reattach my labrum, followed by a second surgery to clean out scar tissue from the first. The labrum is the ring of cartilage that holds the head of the humerus in the shoulder socket. Mine popped off during the 7:30am class at Renzo Gracie Academy, when one of the bigger boys inadvertently dislocated my shoulder. It made a bad sound. I lay on the mat with my arm a dead thing. “Don’t put it back in,” the instructor counseled me, in his hilarious Brazilian accent. I nodded, adjusting my hips and turning my wrist in such a way that it popped back in. It felt like getting hit in the face with a hammer. For the next ten days or so, until I got surgery, my arm would fall out of the socket whenever I leaned forward.

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As Helena lurches to a halt, Kim Dudik goes 13 for 19

Google image search: Helena

The big news out of Helena today is that Montana’s State House has voted down an $80 million dollar infrastructure bill, again. The proposal to fund roads, schools, and water systems asks for less money than some county school districts bonded out this year, but this morning it failed by two votes on its second trip to the floor. Take that, roads, schools, and water systems! The forces of fiscal responsibility are screwing their hats down tight against this expenditure, which amounts to $8 for every person in Montana. The conservative wing killed it in 2015, too.

If the infrastructure bill dies again, it will join such lost causes of the 2017 session as Daniel Zolnikov’s attempt to legalize drinking beer while driving or Keith Regier’s (R-Kalispell) bill to prohibit Montana courts from applying Sharia law. The legislature also failed to lift burdensome regulations on the keeping of domestic foxes. It seems like those assholes can’t pass anything, but then along comes Rep. Kim Dudik. The Democrat from Missoula went 13 for 19 sponsoring bills this session—most of them related to criminal justice or child and family services.

Those happen to be her areas of professional expertise. While various of her colleagues were fighting for the Second Amendment rights of fetuses and whatnot, Dudik drew on her experience as an attorney to make subtle but significant improvements to the Code of Montana. That might be the kind of citizen governance Montana’s framers envisioned when they constructed a legislature that met for 90 days every other year. Or they just wanted the state to stay out of the way of the mining companies. Regardless, Rep. Dudik got more done, in terms of sponsored legislation, than anyone else in Helena this spring. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Struggling Lee Enterprises saves company with purchase of Indy

Lee Enterprises headquarters

As you may remember from late last week, scrappy media conglomerate Lee Enterprises has purchased the Missoula Independent, saving Lee from bankruptcy. Lee was already in bankruptcy back in 2011, because it spent $1.5 billion to buy Pulitzer, Inc. in 2005—a dark horse candidate for deal of the year, since News Corp. paid a mere $580 million for Myspace. Anywhom, Lee went broke buying newspapers. Now, like a fun and informative vampire, it must keep buying more newspapers to stay alive. But its waking nightmare of debt-service undeath is finally over, because it bought my newspaper.

The immense profits that the Indy generates will wipe out Lee’s debts in no time. After a few months of alt-weekly income, the Missoulian can stop writing rapturous features about Cabela’s, and the Beatrice, Nebraska Daily Sun can settle with the families of those kids from last year’s Thresher Days. We’ll all be rich—rich as newsmen!

By we, though, I mean everyone but me. Even a corporation as showered in gold as Lee Enterprises cannot justify my exorbitant fee. And don’t ask me to take a pay cut out of consideration for a mom-and-pop paper chain. My lifestyle simply could not bear it. Although nothing is certain now, I fear my days of making money hand-over-fist-over-emerald-strewn-coke-mirror might be headed to a halt. For all I know, this could be my last column. I excerpt here for posterity:

I know that when I got into this business, it was strictly for the cash. But over the last few years, I have developed an affection for you, the seemingly useless reader. Although writing this column provides me with enough money and drugs to deaden my connection to ordinary people, I cannot help but feel that we are in this together. We live in the same region, after all. Might it be too much to say that we belong to the same community?

I was too temperate to say so in print, but I’ll say it here: we do belong to the same community. That community belongs to Lee Enterprises now. May their two Missoula newspapers, the Missoulian and the Independent, remains as keen and incisive as the heads on a two-headed snake, and may that snake poop money for the rest of our wonderful lives.

Cultural appropriation? Day of the Dead parade ignores Mictecacihuatl

Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, goes totally unrepresented in Missoula's Day of the Dead parade.

Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death (artist’s rendering)

Next week, Missoulians will put on skeleton costumes and parade down Higgins Avenue in one of this town’s oddest observances: the Day of the Dead parade. They’ve been doing it for 24 years, despite the fact that approximately 0.0% of the local population is Mexican. We love parades, though. This one concludes the Zootown Arts Community Center’s monthlong Festival of the Dead, which the ZACC describes as an “all-inclusive multicultural event that honors life and death through community involvement in the arts.”

Again, this all-inclusive multicultural event mostly includes white people. Is it therefore not a little problematic? Might the good people of Missoula not be appropriating someone else’s culture by celebrating this holiday? I agree Missoula’s Day of the Dead festivities stray unconscionably from cultural tradition. They make no mention of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death. In fact, when it comes to appropriating the culture behind the Day of the Dead, the only people worse than Missoulians are Mexicans.

You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which we chart the fine line between resisting cultural appropriation and enforcing cultural segregation. Centuries from now, when ape-robot cyborgs are marching through the ruins of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in skeleton costumes, people who are a quarter Missoulian will lambast them for stealing our culture. Fortunately, I will be dead. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!